Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost

S. Pentecost 14.23

For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

Some diseases have rather drastic treatments. Gangrene is still (as in the middle ages) treated only by amputation of the affected limb. Radiation and chemotherapy treatments can be more drastic than the medieval blood-letting, destroying healthy tissue and organs, sometimes maiming or shortening the life of the patient. Some diseases are so painful—or, like dementia, so destructive of the human personality, we may wonder if death is preferable? We do, after all, shoot horses and put down our pets when they suffer incurably, right?

The bible, of course, is opposed to humans treating people like pets. But God can and does treat us like that—sometimes, as with the Canine-ite woman a couple weeks ago. And today, the LORD Christ comes right out and says that, in the case of the sin that infects the entire human race, death is the only remedy.

Whaaat? Jesus! You can’t be serious!

Well, I’m afraid he is. But he doesn’t shoot us like a horse with a broken leg, or give us a shot so we fall asleep all peaceful and gentle-like. His remedy for sin is the death of his cross, a particularly rough and difficult way to go, the worst, really, humans have come up with.

Whaaat? OK, pastor, you’ve gotten our attention. Now; explain it away! Jesus surely came to save us from death, not inflict it, right?

Well… uhm. Yes. We need to talk about that. Because Peter had the same thought about Jesus and death when the LORD (rather laconically) mentions, as they’re journeying Jerusalem-way, that :“Oh, BTW: the Son of Man must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and the chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Just sayin’…(!)

Now, that was a conversation killer! Peter takes Jesus aside (since Simon’s name is Stone now—like the bass player in a Seattle grunge band) and the church is built on the Rock as we heard last week, and Stone has the keys to the kingdom of heaven, he figures he should rebuke Jesus for having irrepressible thoughts of death (like Barbie did in the recent movie) and is going to nip this death (and cellulite 😉 thing in the bud, right now!

Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you!” Because—and Stone doesn’t verbalize it, but is thinking it—because if this happens to Jesus, LORD(!) and God(!), what stops it from happening to us?!?

But instead of gentle Jesus, meek and mild, putting his arm around Stone and assuring him that, of course, he’s just kidding or using one of those metaphors he’s so fond of—of course, God can’t die and so neither can you; and getting out the guitar Jesus always carried with him, making a camp fire, roasting marshmallows, they sing happy praise songs. Uh, no. Instead, Jesus turns on Peter like a rattlesnake, angry-like, and snaps:

Get behind me, Satan! You are a scandal to me!” (the Greek means a trap-spring) “For you are not thinking the God things, but the man things” (trucks, horses, such-like). And in the awkward silence that ensues, Jesus tells the whole disciple crew:

If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” And then, even more strange: “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life?”

The Greek here is the same word, ψυχη, that is used in the previous verse and translated as “life” by the ESV. Now, the word ψυχη is, most literally: “life”. “Soul” is a euphemistic translation that I personally think is foreign to Greek speaking Jews of the time. The ESV is softening a hard saying by importing a medieval Platonic notion of “the soul” of which the NRSV and the scriptures are innocent. ψυχη is your life, body and spirit (Greek-speaking Jews don’t have a word like modern English “soul” but use πνευμα: “spirt-wind-breath” where moderns use “soul”; but they don’t think of πνευμα as some immaterial part of us that makes us who we are and that is impervious to death. Nope! Christians picture humans as having 2 parts, the πνευμ (the wind-breath-spirit) that animates your σομα (body) which animated body then has “ψυχη”: life.

When the body is broken, ψυχη, our life, dies. When the “πνευμα” (spirit) departs, the “σομα” (physical body) then is dead. I know language lessons aren’t fun, but in this case, it’s very important to correct our modern gnostic-Platonic anthropology (view of humanity) and adopt the biblical view in order to get what Jesus is saying because he’s saying something very difficult, here!

The picture that humans have 3 parts: 1) physical “body”, 2) “spirit” (faith, hope, love), and 3) “soul” (an immaterial “code”, if you will, that makes us the people we are and that is impervious to death) is a pagan Greek philosophical idea that many of the early church fathers adopted and which Aquinas made church dogma in the high middle ages and that, sadly, many Lutherans still hold.

That’s why translating the Greek ψυχη as “soul” is quite wrong, pagan, even, I’d say. Because there really is no such thing in holy scriptures—no immaterial code that makes us who we are that can never die…

The ESV is forced to correctly translate ψυχη as “life” in verse 25: “whoever would save his ψυχη, life, will lose it, but whoever loses his ψυχη, life, for my sake will find it” because “soul” in the sense of an immortal, immaterial part of the human being makes no sense there. If you translate ψυχη as “soul” there, then the soul is subject to death, to ultimate loss, and that jars with the gnostic-Platonic-pagan idea of the soul so dear to so many modern “Christians”.

Again, I’m sorry for the history-language lesson, but without it, I don’t see how we can hear what Jesus is really saying. He’s saying that the only way to really live is being free of sin and the only way to be freed of sin is to die with him on the cross.

Sin is a virus, the most deadly, that has infected our bodies and our spirits and will choke the life out of us. And Jesus has a remedy—though it’s a bit drastic, because our situation is drastic. But look at it this way: is your life so great the way it is? Is the world so wonderful? When Jesus talks about the cross elsewhere, he also talks about hating our lives the way sin has made them.

Now, we struggle with hate talk, as much as sin and death talk. But; Paul hates his life the way sin has made it. It’s an addiction he’s powerless to shake; and if death is the only way to the Good, True, and Beautiful, well, bring it. Just be quick about it! Seriously: can you not imagine—do you not long for a world better than this one, for Paradise? Sometimes…?

Make no mistake: death is a bad thing, in itself, an enemy. Jesus, on the cross, turns death into a drastic remedy. And while, like Peter, we naturally recoil from all this sin and death talk—look at Jesus—his life, death, resurrection. Is he not LORD? Could you just believe that maybe he knows the Way better than you?

There’s a song I like called “I always wanna die—sometimes” Which is it? Always? Sometimes? Yes! I don’t ever wanna die! But sin is death, not life, and if dying with Jesus is the only Way out, then: I always wanna die—sometimes.

By word and sacrament, here, by grace through faith alone, we have. In Jesus’ Name. Amen.

About Pastor Martin

Pastor Kevin Martin has served six Lutheran congregations, beginning in 1986 as a field-worker in Trumbull, Connecticut, and vicarages in Arlington, Massachusetts and Belleville, Illinois. He has been pastor of congregations in Pembroke, Ontario and Akron, Ohio. Since 2000, he has served as pastor of Our Savior Lutheran Church, Raleigh. Pastor Martin is a lifelong (confessional!) Lutheran (even though) he holds degrees from Valparaiso, Yale, and Concordia Seminary St. Louis. He and his wife Bonnie have been (happily) married since 1988, and have two (awesome!) adult children, Bethany and Christopher. Bonnie is an elementary school teacher. The Martin family enjoy music festivals, travel, golf, and swimming. They are also avid readers and movie-goers.

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